by Patricia Chuey, MSc., RD, FDC
4 Questions to Ask to Help Choose Healthy Groceries: No Label Reading Involved!
If the idea of having to pick up a food package and analyze it in order to know what you’re eating doesn’t sound fun to you, you’re not alone. As a dietitian, I dislike reading labels too. I enjoy grocery shopping, cooking, eating and sharing healthy food. I’ve never been a fan of what I call “food math”. Having to look at numbers and do mathematical comparisons definitely adds to the stress of grocery shopping – a task already loathed by many. Shopping for nourishing food shouldn’t be difficult and is a critical prerequisite to cooking and eating quality meals.
If you never really want to read a food label, here are 4 helpful questions to ask in choosing nutritious food:
- Is there even a label on the food? Many of the healthiest foods out there have no labels at all. Think fresh vegetables, fruit, bulk whole grains, bulk nuts and seeds, quality meats, etc. So, no label is often a very positive sign. But many healthy foods also have labels – so this first question is simply an initial screening tool of sorts.
- Is the product easily identifiable by a quick glance or do you need to decipher the label to figure out what it actually is? For example, fresh eggs versus a stylish looking bag of ‘energy bites’ where the ingredients may be unknown until analyzing the fine print on the packaging.
- Is the product plastered with information and multiple messages? For example, does the same product say gluten-free, non-GMO, vegan, paleo, keto-friendly and sugar-free? Although it may in fact be a very decent product, why is it trying so hard to convince you? There are many packaged foods that carry healthy claims like these yet upon closer inspection they may be free of sugar yet lacking fibre and nutrients. A critical question to ask in choosing healthy food is “what does this food contain?”, that is “what am I about to actually eat?” rather than “what doesn’t it have?” One key exception is with food allergies and intolerances where it is indeed necessary to know if the food is nut-free, gluten-free, etc.
- Does the price of the food seem reasonable for what it actually is? Even if money were no object, there are an increasing number of foods in our stores that are as much a product of marketing and technology as they are for sustenance. For example, if your protein energy bar costs $9.99 for one serving, it may be dressed up to promise something you could get from an equally worthy more regular protein source that is far less expense.
Once you’ve asked the 4 questions, should you wish to proceed in looking closer at the food packaging, the most important place to check on the label is the ingredient list. Before noting any numbers, percentages or claims, look at what the food is made of. Ingredients are listed in descending order of the quantity present in the food. Generally, shorter ingredient lists and recognizable ingredients are good things.
If you’re concerned about how many calories, grams of fat, grams of fibre or other nutrients are provided by the food, check the Nutrition Facts Table next. On this table you will see that the nutritional composition of the food is provided for the ‘serving size’ indicated at the top of the table. This is not necessarily the recommended serving and you may opt to have more or even a lesser quantity than is specified. It is also worth noting that not every single nutrient provided by the food is listed on the label.
The % Daily Value on the right-hand side of the label shows what percentage the specified serving of the food contributes towards the approximate daily required amount of the various nutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron. Note that these numbers are approximate only.
Food labels can also include any number of nutrition claims such as low in fat, sugar-free or high in fibre. They can also carry statements like ‘light and fluffy’ or ‘new and improved’ which can reflect the texture or taste of the food and not the nutritional quality.
For more information on label reading, see:
From Dietitians of Canada: Decoding the Nutrition Label
From Health Canada: Food Labelling